The Brao and the Elephant




Hao, my guide, drove me out along a bumpy, dirt road, through the jungle, to a Brao tribal village, where I was to meet my elephant. Checking my pockets, I cursed myself for having forgotten my peanuts. The village was small, with only fifteen houses. But no one could call it a one-elephant-town, this village boasted three elephants.  

In the center of the village, I stood on a mounting block, feeling like Fred Flintstone, waiting for my elephant to arrive. Unfortunately I had left my elephant schedule back in the hotel. A few minutes later, a huge animal came lumbering through the village. You have seen elephants in a circus, and I have ridden elephants in a weeklong elephant polo tournament. But seeing an elephant in a village gave perspective to the mammoth size of these animals.

The elephant made the houses look like small toys. I was reminded of those large, armoured walking robots in The Empire Strikes Back. 

The driver stopped. Is this the cross town I asked. The last thing I wanted to do was get on the wrong elephant, and have to transfer three times to get back.  

Although their principal occupation is farming, not too many years ago, the Brao spent considerably more time in the forest, hunting. At that time, they caught and bred elephants to assist them in their work. Today, elephants are still used, but they are not as common as before.  

Our eighteen-year old Brao driver, Gat, said that the elephants are still sometimes used for hunting. If we ride elephants into the jungle, the animals don't smell the humans, so they are not afraid. They shoot their prey from the back of an elephant. Elephants are also used for transporting goods and taking children to school in the other village. But only in the rainy season. Said Gat.

None of the roads in Ratanakiri province are paved, making transportation a problem, particularly during rainy season.  

Gat's father drove elephant, as did his ancestors before him. Driving elephants is as much a matter of skill as a matter of having a spiritual connection with the tremendously powerful animals. In playing elephant polo, I had seen just how fast these animals could run. And the strength of an elephant is completely unmatched by any other land animal. At any moment, if the elephant chose to, he could kill the driver, or at the very least, run off into the jungle. Gat's father had only promoted him to driver three months earlier. In tribal hierarchy, I am certain that this was a significant promotion in rank and stature. Of course, said another way, we were being driven by someone who still had a learners permit.  

I held tighter to the basket saddle.

This elephant is only sixty years old. Said Gat. He sounded like a used car salesman, like Yeah, this baby only has sixty thousand miles on her.

But they were village miles. The previous owner was an old lady who only drove her to get water at the stream twice a week. She's a cream puff. 

I knew that elephants lived a long time. But still, the age sounded pretty old to me. Of course I had no way of verifying, because it is rude to ask an elephant her age. In one of the guide books it said you could tell an elephant's age by cutting them in half and counting their rings. Somehow, this also seemed rude. And besides, when I think about it, maybe that was for trees. 

Sell elephant for thirty cows. Said Gat. 

At first I thought that he was making small talk. But then I realized maybe he was trying to sell me an elephant. Hao assured me that thirty cows was a good deal. I checked my wallet. Unfortunately I only had seventeen cows. I had a hundred cow note, but they couldn't make change. 

They offered to make change in pigs, but I didn't know the exchange rate from pigs to cows. In the end, I went home in a van, elephantless. 

Changing the subject, we asked Gat how many brothers and sisters he had. 

I don't know, I can't count.

I wasn't sure if he meant that he had so many that he couldn't count, or if they weren't all from the same mother and father, or if he really couldn't count. Lack of education is one of the most serious problems plaguing both the hill tribe people and rural Khmers. In a recent video made by an Australian NGO, which was providing free, village based education, hill tribe women said that the three things they wanted to learn most were Khmer language, literacy, and basic math. Because of a lack of arithmetic, the hill tribal people are often taken advantage of in the markets. Lack of literacy gives them zero access to information. The result is that they succumb to easily preventable illnesses, and they are prime targets for land swindlers. 

I only went to school for one month.ˇ¨ Said Gat. ˇ§I didn't like it. 

Among the many issues, which prevent tribal people from completing school is that they don't like to be indoors. They feel more comfortable in the forest or in their rice fields, with their extended family close by.  

Can you read? I asked.

I only leaned to read my name. Answered Gat. But then with a laugh, he added. But I forgot how, because I haven't practiced in a long time. 

Another issue is that the majority of tribal people can't speak Khmer. So, it is very difficult for them to grasp the concepts of reading and writing, when taught in a foreign language. A program funded by the Australian NGO CARE, is using tribal teachers to first teach literacy in the tribal language, before teaching literacy in Khmer. This approach seems to be more effective. Another improvement over the older methods is that tribal literacy is being taught using the Khmer, rather than the Latin, alphabet.

Since they will eventually need to learn the Khmer alphabet anyway, it is much faster if they learn it through their own language. 

Gat, unfortunately, was not so lucky. ˇ§My teacher was Khmer, and she couldn't speak Brao language.

Whereas elephant driver was probably a full time job at some time in the past, Gat was a full time farmer, and a part time elephant driver. He hadnˇ¦t married yet, although he admitted that he was well above the normal marrying age for tribal people, which he said was between fifteen and eighteen.  He was waiting till he had enough money to support a wife and family. 

Nowadays, the price of elephants has gone up. Said Gat.

He wasn't going to be happy unless I left there, behind the wheel of my own, brand new elephant. In Gat's mind, it was probably a win-win proposition. I could get a good, low-mileage elephant, and he could finally get married. 

You used to be able to get an elephant for thirty cows. But now, elephants cost six thousand dollars.

Now I knew how those tribal women felt at the market. I could do basic arithmetic, read, and write a little, but I would still get ripped off at the market because I didn't know which was worth more, thirty cows or six thousand dollars. 

We passed through hill tribe villages, but there were also a good number of Khmer families, who had come to Ratanikir to take advantage of easy access to land. I do a lot of my tours on a bicycle, because a man on a bike always gets a good reception.  But, if you want people to roll out the red carpet, show up on an elephant. Nothing compared to the reception you get, mounted on the back of a huge, lumbering pachyderm. Riding an elephant, I felt like King Jayavaraman VII, who built Angkor Wat. Whole villages turned out to greet us with huge smiles on their faces. It was like the Pied Piper, an army of small children ran after us, frantically waving, and shouting hello and bye-bye in English. A woman selling products from an informal stall in front of her house shouted at her young son, calling him back. 

I told you not to harass the people riding elephants. She admonished. I remembered my own mother telling me the same thing, back in Brooklyn, when I was his age. The boy looked shy and tried to stay put. But, in the end, his excitement got the better of him, and he began chasing us. 

We passed a small hand operated mill, which the Khmers referred to as gonlein tamaw or the place of the rocks. The ride took us over fields, which had apparently been subjected to slash and burn farming in the past. Now they were overgrown again possibly in some rotation of farming. We turned back into the jungle, eventually arriving at a river, where we walked across the slippery stones of the river bottom and looked over the edge of the waterfall. I could see the headlines now. Man drowned on elephant, over falls, film at eleven. 




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